There are so many similarities between the events and characters in the poem Beowulf and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, an Iceland saga representing 1000 years of oral traditions prior to the 1300’s when it was written. These similarities are so numerous that they cannot be attributed solely to coincidence.
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature states that the hero of the poem Beowulf may be the same person as Bodvar Biarki, the chief of Hrolfr Kraki’s knights (v1, ch3, s3, n13). George Clark in “The Hero and the Theme” mentions: “The form of Beowulf taken as a whole suggests both the ‘Bear’s Son’ folktale type (especially as we find it in Scandinavia) and the ‘combat myth’. . . .” (286). The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki would be both of these. Jesse Byock says: “the earliest accounts of the characters in Hrolf’s Saga come from Anglo-Saxon England, where writing in Roman letters had been adopted in the seventh century, several centuries earlier than in Scandinavia” (Byock xxiv).
Beowulf opens with a short account of the victorious Danish king Scyld Scefing, whose pagan ship-burial is described. His body was carried on board a ship, piled up with arms and treasures: the ship passed out to sea. The reigns of Scyld’s son and grandson, Beowulf and Healfdene, are mentioned, and we then meet Hrothgar, the son of Healfdene. In The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki we also meet a Hrothgar, but his name is abbreviated into Hroar. Hroar is a notable figure, just as in Beowulf, ruling over the northern English kingdom of Northumberland until forced into a disastrous conflict. King Hrothgar builds a splendid hall, call…
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…men and the gentlest, the kindest to his people” (3181).
The Iceland saga, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written in the 1300’s, represents about 1000 years of oral traditions. The remarkable similarities between this saga and Beowulf are just too astounding to dismiss as mere coincidences.
Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Clark, Gorge. “The Hero and the Theme.” In A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
paganbeo Pagan and Heathen Elements in Beowulf
Pagan/Heathen Elements in Beowulf
In Beowulf the pagan element, which coexists alongside the Christian, sometimes in a seemingly contradictory fashion, is many faceted.
Certainly the pagan element seems to be too deeply interwoven in the text of Beowulf for us to suppose that it is due to additions made by scribes. While the poet’s reflections and characters’ statements are mostly Christian, the customs and ceremonies, on the other hand, are almost entirely heathen/pagan. This fact seems to point to a heathen work which has undergone revision by Christian minstrels. “The poet’s heroic age is full of men both ‘emphatically pagan and exceptionally good,’ men who believe in a God whom they thank at every imaginable opportunity. Yet they perform all the pagan rites known to Tacitua, and are not Christian” (Frank 52).
One of the foremost pagan practices in Beowulf is the burial rite of cremation. In the narrative after the conquest of Grendel, a gleeman sings the Finnsburh Episode, the story of a Danish peaceweaver who lost husband, brother and son in the feud. Once the tribes agreed to peace:
Then Hildeburh ordered her own dead son
placed on the pyre beside his uncle Hnaef,
their bone-cases burned, given full fire-burial.
Beside them both the noblewoman wept,
mourned with songs. The warrior rose up;
the mighty death-fire spiraled to heaven,
thundered before the mound. Their heads melted,
their gashes spread open, the blood shot out
of the body’s f…
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…ons, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.